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Basslines and Protest Signs Part 71: I Can’t Breathe

George Floyd memorial mural (photo: Leonhard Lenz)

As I sit to write this column, the prosecution and defense attorneys in the Derek Chauvin case, the officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, are making their opening statements. All eyes are on this courtroom, as law enforcement faces arguably its biggest trial since the case of Rodney King.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell did something very simple and effective — he played the full nine and a half minute video that shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Long before Floyd died, he was clearly unresponsive. Restrained in handcuffs with a police car right next to him and a second officer on hand to help. The video allows the jury to simply see for themselves what happened. It’s right there on film.

The defense got off to a rocky start, stating that the case is about more than the video — more happened beforehand. This is surely a nonsense argument. But it feeds into the right wing social media frenzy of “Floyd wasn’t an angel.” So what? It actually doesn’t matter what happened before, and it really doesn’t matter if Floyd was guilty of anything. This isn’t Judge Dredd, a police officer isn’t judge, jury, and executioner. They don’t have the legal right to dish out death sentences willy nilly. 

“Mr. Derek Chauvin betrayed this badge when he used excessive and unreasonable force upon the body of Mr. George Floyd,” Blackwell said. “That he put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding, and crushing him until the very breath — no, ladies and gentlemen, until the very life was squeezed out of him.”

“This case is not about split-second decision-making,” he continued. “In 9 minutes and 29 seconds there are (569) seconds, not a split-second among them. That’s what this case is about.”

Eric Nelson, defense, tried a longshot approach. “You will learn that Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career,” he said. “The use of force is not attractive but it is a necessary component of policing.”

Again, the jury has seen the video. They know that Floyd was unresponsive, that members of the public were pleading with the two officers to take his pulse, to get off his neck, to put him in the car. A voice yells, “He’s not resisting arrest,” while calling the officer a bum and noting that Chauvin is enjoying himself.

The defense said in their opening statement that the proof will show that asphyxiation was not the cause of Floyd’s death, but rather a heart attack brought on by drugs and adrenalin. We’ll have to see about that, but it still seems like superfluous information. The only relevant question is: Would Floyd have died if Chauvin hadn’t kneeled on his neck? Would he have just keeled over? Seems doubtful.

This would seem to be an open and shut case. Nailed on. But if the Rodney King trial, or Philando Castile, or the countless other people of color killed by law enforcement, has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t be too confident. The evidence here is overwhelming but the trial has to go ahead. Everybody must be heard, and then the jury will make a decision. We have to hope that this time justice will be served.

“What it means to be a public servant and have the honor of wearing this badge,” Blackwell said. “It’s a small badge that carries with it a large responsibility and large accountability to the public. What does it stand for? It represents the very motto of the Minneapolis Police Department. To protect with courage, to serve with compassion, but it also represents the essence of the Minneapolis police department approach to the use of force against its citizens when appropriate.” 

When appropriate. Nobody can reasonably think that police work doesn’t involve some use of force, to restrain where necessary. But that’s not what we see on that video. “Reasonable force” doesn’t apply here.

The murder of Floyd of course sparked many protests throughout the summer. And naturally, many musicians were involved including YG, Halsey, and Jennifer Lopez. More recently, a number of Minneapolis musicians came together to record a reggae song in protest.

Michael Bland of Soul Asylum and Prince’s New Power Generation worked with Jonas Brothers band member Ryan Liestman and R&B singer Carolyne Naomi to record protest anthem “Enough.” 

Bland told Minnesota newspaper the Star Tribune that, “We watched our city come together last year, march together and help each other, people of all colors. We want to encourage everyone to continue sticking together — even if [the trial] gets ugly.” 

“I think this had to be a reggae song,” added Liestman. “Reggae has always been about social commentary and bringing people together around social injustice. It’s message music first and foremost.”

The lyrics of the song include the lines, “Free or guilty, It’s gonna get filthy, You better believe, Roll up your sleeves,” and “We need action now, People won’t wait.”

Terrence Floyd, brother of George, is getting behind the drum kit for an entire protest album with the Rev. Kevin McCall, as reported by the Associated Press.

“I want to pay my respects to my brother any way I can, whether it’s a march, whether it’s just talking to somebody about him, or whether it’s doing what I do and playing the drums,” Terrence told AP. “His heartbeat is not beating no more but I can beat for him.”

The currently untitled project features songs with titles like “No Justice No Peace,” and it includes singer Malikka Miller. It can currently be found on most major streaming services.

Expect republicans to continue playing the false equivalency of comparing the protests following Floyd’s murder to the violent insurrection on January 6. All we can do is keep the truth, keep justice at the forefront of our minds, and hope for a just verdict this time.